Garcia: An American Life

by Blair Jackson

Published by Viking

498 pages, 1999

Buy it online






Ice Cream and Big Lives

Reviewed by Thomas R. Everitt


One of the more interesting tidbits of information floating around the Internet these days is the fact that Cherry Garcia is the most popular selling flavor of ice cream in Ben & Jerry's history. For those of you unfamiliar with enormous ice cream conglomerates, Ben & Jerry's is the largest ice cream store franchise in North America, if not the world. For those of you unfamiliar with Cherry Garcia, this vanilla-flavored, cherry chunked ice cream has been named for the late Jerry Garcia, the Grateful Dead 's lead guitarist and songwriter.

Initially I found this quite odd. Was there an enormous virtually untapped demand for cherry-saturated ice cream that went undiscovered until Ben & Jerry's market researchers struck gold? Perhaps, but after reading Blair Jackson's biography of Jerry Garcia entitled, Garcia: An American Life, I believe the answer to the Ben & Jerry's question lies with the man himself. Garcia's fabled life of musical brilliance, deep spirituality and well-chronicled longterm self-abuse and excesses inevitably led to his demise. I'll share my theory later, allowing those of you who agree with me to run out and purchase this lovely hardcover edition for your collection, and the rest to grab a cone because subliminally I've made you hungry.

I have a confession to make. Considering that I see myself as quite an authority of different musical cultures and styles, this is not an easy task. You see, until I read Jackson's biography, I knew virtually nothing about the Grateful Dead. Absolutely nothing. Out of the thousands of CD's that have crossed my palms, the innumerable amount of albums I've listened to and the countless live concerts that I've attended, nary a one even remotely resembled the Grateful Dead. It just wasn't my thing, or so I thought. Now in order to settle Jackson's concerns over why a non-authoritarian is reviewing his book, I'll let it be known that while I wasn't a Deadhead, (that catchy name given the thousands of people who attended Dead shows with the frequency of Catholics at Sunday Mass) my older sister was. I'm not quite sure just exactly how many shows my sister attended, but I do know that one Christmas, as my family sat around the tree in Toronto, my mother learned, through her Christmas card, that my sister had hitchhiked to California, in the dead of winter (no pun intended), to catch a few shows in San Francisco and "find herself."

On another occasion, my parents received a hospital bill from Detroit, Michigan for the princely sum of $500. The bill was attached to an admittance form telling them in no uncertain terms that my sister had been admitted for LSD intoxication during the same weekend as the annual Detroit Dead Festival. This has, I believe, qualified me somewhat and piqued my curiosity enough that I might give a fair and unbiased review of Blair Jackson's Jerry Garcia biography. To my sister Sarah, who forever told me "Dude, you've got to see the Dead show this weekend in Buffalo!" I wish I had listened. This one's for you.

There are occasions when a celebrity or international figure has been typecast and deservedly so. History is filled with them so I won't bother with examples. It was, however, with pleasure that I realized that my initial thoughts and ideas about what kind of positive side Jerry Garcia had was, basically, bang-on. Jackson, a veteran rock journalist who has attended over 350 Dead shows, has a true gift for a style of writing that allows the reader to feel each and every moment as if Jerry Garcia had written the book himself. With over 100 interviews with Garcia, his fellow musicians, friends, family and lovers, the only person who is more qualified to write this biography would have been Garcia himself. For example, in describing Jerry's first instrument on his 15th birthday, Jackson writes:

That birthday was the joyous occasion when his mother finally recognized the musician inside Jerry that was straining to be heard, broke down and got him what he'd always wanted; an accordion. Wait a minute!

It's a story Jerry told with relish to any interviewer who asked him about it: "I went nuts--'Ahhhggg! No! No!--' I railed and I raved, and she finally turned it in, and I got a pawnshop electric guitar and an amplifier. I was beside myself with joy... I wanted to make that sound so badly."

Any definitive work on a public figure is rife with small anecdotes and curious moments, each discovered by the author through days, months and even years of research. It appears to be no different with Jackson. However, it seems that Jackson's own interviews with Garcia as well as his impeccable research has allowed him the opportunity to basically quote, verbatim, Jerry's own words at every point in his life. The detail is staggering and yet for both fans of the Dead and those who aren't, it never borders on tedious reading. Outrageous and incomprehensible at points, but never tedious. In fact, at times, Jackson not only reminisces about a Dead show, but he goes into lengthy detail about how each song was played with a faster or slower tempo as opposed to a previous show. He also refers to many songs being more or less meaningful, or whether Jerry was into it completely or not, all without sounding repetitive or monotonous. For Dead fans and fans of his own Jerry Garcia Band especially, this kind of detail is invaluable.

While Jackson obviously admired Garcia's music, he readily admits to the man's faults and frailties as a human being. It is also with a tad of reluctance that I realized my initial thoughts and ideas regarding Garcia's negative side were, as well, bang-on. In documenting Garcia's broken marriages, irresponsibilities and drug and alcohol abuse, Jackson pulls no punches. And while the public habitually forgives public figures and celebrities for their weaknesses, Jackson delves deeply into Jerry's in order for the reader to better understand what made him who he was with respect to his achievements and failures. And, regrettably, what helped to bring his early demise at the age of 53.

I'm not going to get into descriptions of Jerry's legendary binges. It's not for fear of offending fans of The Grateful Dead or Jerry Garcia, but in fairness to the tremendous and difficult task Jackson had in fairly differentiating between the brilliant and the not-so-brilliant sides of Garcia while not exploiting the obviously more lucrative side. At one point, after writing about Jerry's heroin and cocaine-induced four-day coma -- and incident which nearly ended Garcia right there -- Jackson writes:

Garcia handled his new megacelebrity with characteristic grace and self-deprecating humor.... Asked in 1987 how he dealt with his near-deification among some extremely fanatical Deadheads, who saw his survival as a mystical Sign from Above, Garcia said with a laugh, "I ignore 'em. I know better you know? I mean, no matter who you are, you know yourself for the asshole that you are. You know yourself for the person who makes mistakes and is capable of being really stupid. And doing stupid things.

To describe Garcia's musical brilliance, one would have to listen to a great deal of the Dead's music as well as the solo material he has released. Having confessed that I am woefully ignorant of such music, except for tunes such as "Truckin'" (though I'm not even sure that is the correct name of the song), "Casey Jones", (you know, the one that goes "Trouble ahead, trouble behind, and you know that notion, just crossed my mind") and of course, that overplayed commercial tune, "Touch of Grey," I will not be hypocritical and pretend to know how great his music was. It was popular enough, however, and the fact that he was on the covers of Newsweek, People, Rolling Stone etc. and had several commemorative issues dedicated to him after his death speaks volumes of his influence on the music scene. Perhaps People Magazine -- that diary to the excess of the entertainment world -- said it best when, upon Jerry's death, they dubbed him "Rock's Happy Warrior."

I am able to say, however, that like the people who sit down to their first real taste of sushi and declare "half a billion people can't be wrong" that the same comparison could be made with the millions of people who've obviously enjoyed the Grateful Dead's music and continue to do so. Also, the mere existence of hundreds of thousands of Deadheads who followed the Grateful Dead faithfully for all or some of their 30 year tour also can't be ignored. Which leads me to my aforementioned theory regarding Cherry Garcia ice cream and its unaccountable popularity. Maybe it is the greatest flavor ever, who knows? But maybe -- just maybe -- what with Jerry gone and the Dead shows no more, the throngs of Deadheads often take a casual stroll down the street of their respective neighborhoods on a sunny weekend. You might not recognize them without their tie-dye outfits on but it's them. And, at the nearest Ben & Jerry's, maybe these same Deadheads -- both young and old, retail clerks and C.E.O.'s alike -- have got some spare time (and spare change) and they order up a waffle cone of Cherry Garcia and enjoy a relaxing karmic lick in tribute to their "Happy Warrior." | December 1999


Thomas R. Everitt is a Vancouver-based writer.